Running On Empty

The Meaning of Life Series
  • What happens when we seek ultimate meaning outside of relationship with the Creator God? What happens when we're desperate for the answers to life but can't seem to find any? What happens when our souls get wearied from the constant pursuit of pleasure and possessions? These are enormous questions of life and meaning that Ecclesiastes grapples with in the timeless complexity and messiness of reality. In the end, the ancient philosopher recalibrates our hearts, minds, and lives to pursue meaning in the Ultimate God because God alone holds the key to the meaning of life.
2. Running On Empty (Ecclesiastes 2:1-16)
  • Can we find meaning in life through wisdom and pleasure?
Sermon Preparation Guide
  • Importance – What are the central ideas of the text?
  • Meaning in life is not to be found in pleasure, no matter what the pleasure is. (Ecclesiastes 2:1 & 2)
  • Meaning in life is not found in wisdom, madness or folly, even if wisdom is better than the other two. (Ecclesiastes 2:12, 15)
  • We can learn from the search for the meaning of life of the wisest man who walked the earth – there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:15, 17)
  • Implications – What questions should the listener be asking?
  • What is pleasure to you and what do you expect from it?
  • Why is wisdom better than madness and folly, but why do none of them lead to meaning?
  • What can we learn from the Preacher's search, and why is it important that we learn from him?
Talk it Over Discussion Guide
  • Interpretation – What is the text telling/showing us?
  • Why did the Preacher try to find meaning in pleasure?
  • What were the pleasures the Preacher searched? Make a list of them.
  • What is it about the things on the list that provide pleasure to an individual?
  • Why is there no ultimate meaning in life in the pursuit of pleasure?
  • Why did the Preacher try to find meaning in wisdom, madness and folly?
  • What are wisdom, madness and folly? Why do they not provide meaning in life?
  • What does the Preacher mean when writes, “For what can the man do who comes after the king?” in verse 12?
  • Why is wisdom better than madness or folly, relatively speaking? But where do all three end up? 
  • Implementation – What should the listener’s response be?
  • What is good about seeking pleasure? What is wrong about seeking pleasure?
  • What is pleasure for you in your life? Do you seek to find meaning in that pleasure? Why or why not?
  • Why do people who do not have a relationship with God seek to find meaning in the pursuit of pleasure? Where will that pursuit lead them?
  • Why is following wisdom and seeking after it a good thing and madness and folly not a good thing?
  • Can you think of examples of madness and folly you have experienced or witnessed? What were the outcomes of those examples?
  • Have you been able to learn from the experience and discoveries of others in your own search for meaning in life?
  • If pursuing pleasure or wisdom leads to vanity, where can you find meaning? Have you found meaning in life? Where?
Sermon Teaching Notes (as prepared by Pastor Dick Murphy)
  • Investigation – What’s generally going on in this area of Scripture?
In chapter one of this book of Ecclesiastes, the writer (in our view, Solomon the King of Israel) has set forth his thesis about the meaning and purpose of life, namely that all is meaningless (“all is vanity” Ecclesiastes 1:2). Having begun with his conclusion, in the ensuing chapters the writer reviews the length and breadth of his search for meaning; in other words, he lays out how he arrived at his conclusion having applied his heart “to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 1:13. See also Ecclesiastes 1:17), leaving no stone unturned in his search.

This review of the Preacher's search begins in chapter 2 with his look to “pleasure” to find meaning (Ecclesiastes 2:1). Pleasure in the sense used by the Preacher in his search means whatever in life can supply fun, mirth and enjoyment. The phrase, “Eat, drink and be merry!” fits this picture. Pleasure thus means enjoy yourself, live in the moment, indulge your desires for pleasure, party on, have fun and laugh. One commentator suggests it means “more and varied pleasures, entertainments, and excitements.” Sounds like life in the year 2016 in the western world! The Preacher tried it all, albeit with discernment (Ecclesiastes 2:3). He cites enjoyment (Ecclesiastes 2:1), laughter (Ecclesiastes 2:2), wine (Ecclesiastes 2:2), great building and environmental improvements (Ecclesiastes 2:4-6), acquisitions of all kinds (Ecclesiastes 2:7 & 8), greatness in the eyes of the world (Ecclesiastes 2:9), and anything and everything else one could imagine (Ecclesiastes 2:10). In short, any way one could think to derive pleasure, from whatever angle or perspective, the Preacher tried them all; he went for it, full out, withholding nothing from his pursuit. And note, this wasn't wild, thoughtless pursuit on the part of the Preacher; it was rather a determined, discerning effort to find meaning in life, in this case, through pleasure of whatever kind (Ecclesiastes 2:3, 9).

But where did the search for meaning in pleasure get the Preacher? Nowhere; the search led him to meaninglessness, not meaning. Listen to the words of the Preacher as he digests the results of his search: “It is mad.” (concerning laughter, Ecclesiastes 2:2); “What use is it?” (concerning pleasure, Ecclesiastes 2:2); “all was vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:11); “there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:11b) The search for life's meaning through pleasure, then, was a dead end; it merely confirmed the Preacher's thesis. Interestingly, all the things that the Preacher chased after are not necessarily bad things; pleasure is not evil in and of itself. Look again at some of the things the Preacher did for pleasure: built houses; planted vineyards; made gardens and parks; planted; made water available to help the forest grow; raised herds and flocks; gathered treasure. So the issue is not the things the Preacher did, but instead are the result in what he did in terms of purpose and meaning in life. And the result was “striving after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:11) This is not to say that the things the Preacher did can be evil, as they certainly can be when they are done for self-gratification, or at the expense of others, or out of selfishness and pride. The point in this book is the search for ultimate meaning and purpose in life, and the Preacher discovered that was no such meaning to be found in pursuing pleasure.

The Preacher then turned to consider “wisdom and madness and folly” (Ecclesiastes 2:12) and whether they might lead to meaning. And it seems that the Preacher takes the view that once he considers these things, there can be no better or deeper understanding than his own conclusions, given who he is, his great wisdom, and the resources at his disposal to experiment with whatever he wants in order to find meaning. The king who comes after him can do no more than the Preacher (Ecclesiastes 2:12). This is not a boasting statement, but rather a statement of fact; the answers and discoveries of the Preacher are definitive, and no subsequent searching will discover anything more or different. So, what are wisdom, madness and folly? Wisdom is a knowledgeable, discerning view and perspective on everything; it is using reason skillfully, and judiciously, with broad and full intelligence, and understanding. Madness, which could be translated “insanity,” is basically the opposite of wisdom; it is the view without reason; it is senselessness. Folly means foolishness or silliness. It is also contrasted with wisdom and represents a vapid approach to things, a thoughtlessness and empty-headed perspective. The Preacher concludes that in general, and apart from meaning, wisdom is preferred over madness and folly as it leads to light rather than darkness, to understanding rather than illusion, to consciousness rather than delusion. Relatively speaking, wisdom trumps madness and folly. And yet … and yet … the Preacher concludes that what good is wisdom when, in the end, it leads to the same place as madness and folly. The wise man will be remembered no more than will be the fool (Ecclesiastes 2:16); both the wise man and the fool die the same death (Ecclesiastes 2:16). So where do wisdom, madness and folly lead? Again, not to meaning, but to vanity.

Verse 17, while not part of the verses in these Notes, nevertheless amounts to a transitional verse, summing up the direction of thought in verses 2 through 16, but also tying the thought to what will follow in verse 18. And it is a restatement of the thesis: “… [A]ll is vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:17b). Can we find meaning to life in pleasure? NO. Can we find meaning in life in wisdom, madness or folly? No. The great mind and unlimited resources of the Preacher-King, when applied to the question of meaning in life in the pursuit of these latter things, have come up empty again. But yet again, the conclusion of the Preacher serves to point out the need for something else, something from outside, to provide meaning and purpose. The Preacher will not find what he is looking for on the earth, or in human wisdom and endeavors; he has found only meaninglessness in those things, though he will continue his search and try other avenues to find meaning. But he will fail, because there is “nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:11b) The answer to an understanding of life will come from God's perspective, as we will see in the end. The Preacher's search will show us that in the weeks ahead.